Monday, February 27, 2012

Thorstein Veblen and Occupy Wall Street

From Richard Lichty emeritus at UMN Duluth, by way of Crooked Timber, (comment 2) an explanation of the world according to Thorstein Veblen, the man who created the Theory of the Leisure Class and Conspicuous Consumption, providing much intellectual framework with which we today parse the world.

TV nailed it about the time Arrhenius was explaining the Greenhouse Effect

Veblen identified two different behavioral traits in history: the trait of workmanship and the predatory trait (the tendency to exploit and plunder). Workmanship includes such things as parenting and "idle curiosity" in addition to the more usual use of the term - creativity. It is out of this trait that advances in civilization stems. It is also out of this trait from which the instinct for cooperation stems.
The predatory instinct is what made early societies revere the strong. The booty from victory at war, including slaves, ears, scalps, etc., were often displayed by the mightiest of warriors. In other systems, the instinct might be less obvious - but it always leads to sexism, racism, subjugation, and exploitation. If this instinct is hidden in society, it is usually hidden behind sportsmanship and ceremonialism.  .  .
Veblen asserted that the businessperson's desire for pecuniary gain would cause him/her to lose any interest in producing things. Buying and selling companies, closing and opening companies, in short, financial wheeling and dealing would take precedence over production. Absentee ownership would become the pinnacle of success. The absentee owner spends his/her time with accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers, advisors, but not with the engineers.  The engineers would keep production going for the business leaders so that at least something will be produced.
UPDATE:  Hank delivers the experimental evidence in the comments

"New research suggests that the upper classes are more likely to behave dishonorably than those lower on the economic spectrum. The rich are more likely to cheat, steal, and even disobey traffic laws than those with less money and power (abstract).
Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior by  K. Piff, Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and Dacher Keltner
 Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.
Galt is evil


Hank Roberts said...

well then:

"New research suggests that the upper classes are more likely to behave dishonorably than those lower on the economic spectrum. The rich are more likely to cheat, steal, and even disobey traffic laws than those with less money and power (abstract).

John said...

Does "the predatory instinct" ... "always lead(s) to sexism, racism, subjugation, and exploitation) or do sexism, racism, subjugation and exploitation lead to predation?

John Puma

Pinko Punko said...


I have been waiting for that to blow up all day. I love how the affiliations of the researchers are Berkeley and a Canadian University. This could not be more inflammatory to the dear establishment Right.

Russell said...

Thanks Hank .

It is time the world knew that Genghis Khan only vanquished his enemies, stole their horses, and sleep with their wives and daughters in order to violate their jaywalking statutes.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

And they really will take candy from babies!

hd wallpapers said...

hahaha they will snatch sure

Vinny Burgoo said...

For a Brit, the biggest surprise in that paper is that Donald Trump is considered to be upper-class. He's a dreadful parvenu, dontchaknow.

The rest is somewhat circular. Greedy, flashy, self-centred people are greedy, flashy and self-centred. Who knew?

The Prius result is far more interesting. It confirms earlier research from the same department at the same Canadian university, which found that people who are exposed to green products behave more ethically but that if they actually buy green products they are more likely to cheat. (Presumably, the pedestrians who were exposed to the hurtling Prius went home and did a good deed.) The same researcher, Nina Mazar, has also found that collectivism encourages bribery, which suggests that there would be far more dishonesty at an Occupy encampment than upstairs at Downton Abbey.

Anonymous said...

Collectivism has to be read within the context of the dominant mode of production. Greed is privileged by the dominant mode. Is bribery dishonest if it is an accepted way of bartering within the mode? And is bribery the result of a collective enmeshed within the relations of the dominant mode? Anyone who tries to form a collective within the legal and economic milieu of capitalism is undoubtedly going to end up with a strange beast that tries to tear itself apart. The current dominant mode encourages greed, and greed is now perfectly acceptable, celebrated, even essential if we are to believe the Ron Pauls of the world (and the overall message of the Reagan era). The private property system (which essentially breaks up the ecologically integrated world into a series of disintegrated commodity parcels) is quite intentionally encoded in current law.

It's very difficult to escape the defining relations of an era when they are invested in so many institutions and cultural practices. One's basic needs might be universal, but the shape of one's desires and politics are strongly subject to those defining relations. There was a time when sociologists and anthropologists who recognized that were called 'radicals'. Things have changed a little in the last 20-30 years, but there is still a high level of historical and scientific ignorance across the world. 'Postmodernity' has seen its day as a buzzword, but the conditions it represents are alive and well; just ask Christopher Monckton, whose success depends on it.

The article mentions philanthropists as outliers in the data. These are people who are apparently not greedy because they give their well-earned money to charity organizations. In other words, they take the wealth they've collected through the existing system (a system that, by definition, creates inequality), they use some of it to leverage more capital, some of it on personal and familial security, and give some of it to foundations that then function as governments but without democratic control. And of course they look like heroes when they do give, even though the source of all wealth is the hand that digs, shapes, picks, and carries.

Who is John Galt? The incredibly violent but ephemeral simulacrum of the era.

-- Manymouse

Anonymous said...

Galt was not evil, just a guy who was convinced that perpetual motion was possible -- and that he had invented a "motor" based on it.

IE, a Galt was a goofball, not unlike many of his present-day worshipers.


Vinny Burgoo said...

Manymouse, it turns out that the Mazar study on collectivism and bribery used a non-political definition of 'collectivism': 'The degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organizations or families.' Such clannishness has little or no relevance to the dominant mode of production and no special relevance to the Occupy movement.

Apologies for the red herring.

(I'm confused by your use of 'simulacrum'. Did you mean that the fictional Galt is a substantive but transient effigy of the era - and, if so, what did you mean by that? - or that he is an insubstantial distortion of the era? Something else entirely?)